Food & Drink Agent orange

Local Tex-Mex eateries are going cheap on the cheese

Back in the day, the big question for patrons of Tex-Mex restaurants was Corn or flour? Today, patrons should be asking, "What kind of cheese do you put on the enchiladas?"

Consider this a rant.

First, a bit of history. Back in the 1960s, a majority of Tex-Mex restaurants in San Antonio served up tasty cheese enchiladas. The corn tortillas were colored with genuine red dye and packed with finely chopped onions and shredded, sharp Cheddar cheese. A generous layer of both ingredients was sprinkled on top as well. The plates were scalding hot, and the unmistakable taste of cheese melded with onions, tortillas, and a north-of-the border style chile sauce that was perfect on the palate.

While there's no substitute for sharp Cheddar cheese on a plain 'ol bean and cheese taco, these days, it seems that most of the 400 or so local Tex-Mex restaurants - that's one restaurant for every 2,500 people - have switched to process American cheese. "Quick melt, or process cheese is made by taking natural cheese (Cheddar!), and blending it with emulsifiers, which gives it an improved meltability," says Lydia Botham, director of communications for Land 'O Lakes Inc., of St. Paul, Minnesota, which makes and sells cheddar cheese, American cheese, and other dairy products.

Don't get me wrong. American cheese can taste fine on a grilled cheese sandwich. But to put anything but shredded, sharp English or Wisconsin Cheddar cheese on enchiladas, bean and cheese tacos, or crispy tacos is just plain wrongheaded, no matter what the level of viscosity or meltability is.

My frequent dining companion believes I'm just being arrogant; she's about to scratch me off her list of dining companions if I don't stop ranting about the cheese. But I have the facts to back up my claim that San Antonio diners are getting short-changed in the cheese department.

According to the website, "Cheese Reporter," of Madison, Wisconsin, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service estimates that Americans consume an average 9.22 pounds of Cheddar in 2003, almost one-third of the total cheese consumption per person. And the USDA estimated that Cheddar consumption would jump to 10.28 pounds per person in 2004.

At the same time, per-person consumption of American-type cheeses fell to 2.62 pounds in 2004, down about two-thirds of a pound from 2003's record of 3.29 pounds. American-type cheeses are defined as Colby, washed curd, stirred curd, Monterey Jack, and pasteurized, process cheese, which, naturally, gets a lower USDA rating than Cheddar.

Anyone who wants to test my Cheddar-cheese theory should order a plate of cheese enchiladas at the Blue Moon Café on South Flores. Guadalupe and Ruben García have not changed their recipe from the original Cheddar and chopped onions. The sharp cheese melts just fine.

Also on the South Side, Ruben Cruz took over ownership of the former Elizondo's Café on Commercial Avenue in 1995. Hundreds of McCollum High School students grew up on the famous Elizondo carne guisada tacos, sans cheese, during the decades that family was in business. Cruz uses Land 'O Lakes quick melt, "it is preferred by my customers."


And at Everybody Loves Raymond's Tacos on South Pleasanton Road, the waitress did not know what kind of cheese they use. "The yellow one ... I'll check for you ... oh, they already grated it."

As Maxwell Smart would say, "Aha, the old shredding the evidence trick." The last resort is Don Pedro Mexican Restaurant on Military Drive. Surely they would preserve the Cheddar cheese tradition.

"What kind of cheese do you use on your enchiladas?"

"En Español, por favor ... Americano."

"¿Por qué estan usando queso Americano? ¿Por qué no estan usando queso de Cheddar?"



"¿Quién sabe?"

By Michael Cary

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